By Dan Balz
The Washington Post
It is easy to get confused in the final week of a presidential campaign, and we are at that point in Campaign 2012. There are conflicting polls in battleground states, unexpected moves by the campaigns into new states, widely varying assessments from the partisans in both parties and persistent spinning by the candidates' advisers.
There are also certain realities about campaigns that offer some anchors, if not real answers, for assessing what is happening now and what may happen Tuesday. Where candidates spend their time in the final days is one clue. How states have performed, relative to one another, in past elections is another. Another is how different groups of voters are leaning.
One question in dispute right now is whether Mitt Romney can actually expand the electoral map by putting Pennsylvania, Michigan and even Minnesota into play. Republicans are advertising in those states, claiming there is an opportunity for the GOP nominee to win. President Obama's campaign has countered with ads of its own, which Republicans say is a sign of weakness.
Obama officials claim that Romney is probing those states because he's run into trouble in true battlegrounds. Obama advisers say they decided to air ads in those states out of prudence rather than concern. Chief Obama strategist David Axelrod even promised on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Wednesday that he would shave off his moustache if the president lost any of those states.
Money spent in unexpected places by the campaigns or their supporting super PACs tells us little at this point. That's because, unlike past presidential campaigns, resources are not an issue for either Romney or Obama and certainly not for the super PACs.
Neither candidate is taking federal funds for the general election, which means there are no limits on spending. Both campaigns are flush with cash and budgeted for the battlegrounds long ago. Both have extra funds to play with down the stretch.
That's a hugely different situation than in the past when, with limited funds, campaigns had to make triage decisions about states in the final weeks. Recall that in 2000, Al Gore's campaign had to pull out of Ohio to invest all it had into Florida. So the fact that Romney's campaign has put some money into ads in Minnesota and now Pennsylvania doesn't necessarily say much.
Republicans cite new public polls out Wednesday showing the race in both Pennsylvania and Michigan tightening. They say that is evidence that the momentum in the race has shifted toward Romney and that the challenger is now in a position to overtake the incumbent in states that once appeared off the boards.
Maybe. But if the national polls are showing a dead heat, as most of them do right now, it's expected that states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and even Minnesota will show relatively close contests.
That doesn't mean the balance has shifted to Romney in those states - he's still trailing Obama. It only means that if the national numbers show the race essentially tied or with one candidate ahead by a point, these states aren't going to show the president ahead by seven or eight or nine points. Only if Romney were to win a big victory in the popular vote is he likely to carry these states.
Look historically at these states. Pennsylvania long was considered a true battleground until four years ago, when Obama won it by 11 points. But his percentage in Pennsylvania was less than two points more than he got nationally. Still, Republicans haven't won Pennsylvania since 1988.
Four years ago, John McCain's campaign team thought they saw something happening in Pennsylvania late in the fall and even sent him into the state in the closing days. It was more a sign of weakness than strength. Whatever his advisers thought was happening was either illusory or disappeared by Election Day. Pennsylvania should be closer at this point than it was in 2008, given where the national polls are, but it still tilts toward Obama.
Michigan shows a similar pattern, though, it has become even more Democratic in presidential races over the past few cycles. Four years ago, Obama got 57 percent of the vote in Michigan, four points better there than he got nationally. John Kerry ran three points better in Michigan than he did nationally in 2004, as did Gore in 2000. With the national polls close, Michigan, like Pennsylvania, should be closer than it was four years ago.
George W. Bush made a strong push for Minnesota in 2000, seeing opportunities among younger white men, and made a race of it. Gore carried the state, but only by about two percentage points. (Ralph Nader got 5 percent there that year.) Kerry won the state by three points in 2004. Four years ago, some early fall polls made Minnesota look competitive. Obama ended up winning by 10 points.
Instead of watching the advertising dollars, watch the candidates' movements. Will Romney campaign in Michigan or Pennsylvania before Tuesday? His campaign announced a big rally in Ohio on Friday night, which will feature a huge cast of elected officials from around the country. They will then fan out in groups across 11 states (including Pennsylvania and Michigan but not, according to the Romney release, Minnesota). But where will Romney go?
The Republican nominee was spending Wednesday in Florida, a state he needs to take Tuesday to have a realistic chance of winning. He hasn't put that state away yet, although Republicans remain cautiously confident that he will. He also hasn't locked down Virginia, a state that under virtually every scenario must be in his column for a Romney victory.
And then there is Ohio, the battleground of battlegrounds, where the success of the president's automakers bailout continues to throw obstacles in Romney's path. Romney's new TV ad implying that Chrysler plans to shift production of Jeeps from Ohio to China (denied outright by Chrysler officials) reflects the campaign's concerns about winning enough white, working-class votes in Ohio to carry the state.
Two new polls of Ohio came out overnight. A Quinnipiac University poll for the New York Times and CBS News showed Obama ahead by five points, which conforms roughly to where the Obama campaign says the race stands. The Ohio Poll by the University of Cincinnati showed Obama ahead by two points, which is closer to what Republicans say the race looks like in their private polls.
Romney's biggest opportunity to convert an Obama state is in Wisconsin, where both Republicans and Democrats say the race is tight (though they differ on just how tight). Wisconsin was one of the closest states in the nation in both 2000 and 2004, and it's conforming closer to that pattern this year than to the 2008 pattern, when Obama won by 14 points.
A victory in Wisconsin could help break open the electoral map for Romney and provide a path to 270 without Ohio - if he were also to win Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado. Even if Obama were to win Nevada, where he is favored, and New Hampshire, Romney would emerge with 273 electoral votes.
There are three groups of voters to watch: independents, women and whites, particularly whites without college degrees. Obama needs a strong vote from women, and he is advertising heavily to appeal to them. Romney has made some inroads with female voters, according to the Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll.
Romney will win the white vote, but a key question is what percentage of the electorate will white voters constitute. As the minority population increases in the country, the share of the white vote has been declining in each presidential election. The Obama campaign expects that to continue this year. Any halting or reversal would create problems for Obama, who has been hovering around 40 percent of the white vote in the polls. In Ohio, Obama's strength (or weakness) with white working-class voters in Ohio may decide the outcome there.
As for independent voters, the Post-ABC News tracking poll completed Monday night and published Tuesday afternoon showed Romney winning independents by single digits, as he was the day before. He enjoyed double-digit margins among independents in the days before that. Independents have swung back and forth in recent presidential and congressional elections and likely will be with the winner Tuesday.
What remains true as the campaigns resume in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is that the race that both Obama and Romney prepared for is what they got - a close and competitive election being fought out in a handful of states as the final days arrive.